State Politics

Fla. justices uphold state lobbying ethics law

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s tough lobbyist ethics law that went into effect three years ago complies with the state constitution and was properly passed, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The law bans lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators and other elected officials including lavish wining and dining that once was a common practice in Tallahassee. It also requires lobbyists to file disclosure statements saying who pays them and how much.

The Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists had challenged the law in federal court. The U.S. District Court of Appeal in Atlanta rejected arguments the law was vague or overly broad but asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on questions of state constitutional law.

In a 6-0 opinion, the justices denied claims the law violates the constitutional separation of powers doctrine and infringes on the Supreme Court’s authority to regulate lawyers who also work as lobbyists.

“It’s a victory for the people,” said former Senate President Tom Lee, who spearheaded the law’s passage to stop influence peddling. “It already has changed the culture of politics in Tallahassee.”

Lee, a Republican from Bradenton, lost a race for chief financial officer in 2006 when he left the Legislature.

He said it was appropriate for the high court to release its decision during Sunshine Week, which promotes open government but was worried that lobbyists will persuade the Legislature to weaken the law. Bills to let lobbyists spend up to $20 per legislator for food and drink at meetings and public events have been filed but not yet heard in committee.

The lobbyist association has not yet decided whether to take further legal action.

“They still didn’t understand the separation of powers question,” said Carl Adams, the association’s president and founder. Adams, though, acknowledged the opinion was straightforward and said, “It didn’t deal in a whole lot of gobbledygook.”

Justice Ricky Polston wrote for the court that the Legislature did not encroach on other branches of government because the Florida Constitution does not give any agency authority to regulate lobbying nor does it explicitly prohibit what the law requires.

“Therefore ... the Legislature is not prohibited from using its own discretion to accomplish the task,” Polston wrote.

Adams said that leaves lobbyists at the mercy of the Legislature with nowhere to appeal when lawmakers take disciplinary action against them.

The justices ruled lobbying does not constitute the practice of law.

The Legislature, therefore, can discipline lawyer-lobbyists on lobbying matters without infringing on the Supreme Court’s authority relating to their practice of law, Polston wrote.

After reviewing House and Senate journals, the high court also rejected an argument the Legislature missed a constitutionally required step when it passed the law during a special session in December 2005.

“If you read the constitution the way I do, the court made a bad ruling,” said Ken Plante, a veteran lobbyist and former Republican legislator who helped found the association.

Adams said the law has little effect on Tallahassee lobbying although newcomers may have a harder time getting to know lawmakers due to the gift ban.

“All the young guys coming in will never have the chance to establish a relationship,” Adams said.

He said he didn’t know of any wrongdoing uncovered as a result of the law and that there’s no way to tell if it’s had a deterrent effect.